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Artists for Haiti

by Emily Nathan
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“A little can go a long way in Haiti,” David Zwirner said to a flock of press gathered at his gallery on Tuesday for a walkthrough of “Artists for Haiti,” the special sale of artworks that he organized for a benefit auction at Christie’s in New York on the evening of Sept. 22, 2011. Conceived in collaboration with actor (and art collector) Ben Stiller and his eponymous philanthropic foundation to bolster relief efforts in the earthquake-ravaged Caribbean country -- the poorest in the Western Hemisphere -- the sale brings together 26 paintings, drawings and sculptures, most of which were made specifically for the auction and donated by 25 international artists, ranging from Neo Rauch and Karin Mamma Andersson to Glenn Ligon and Urs Fischer.

The works are on view at David Zwirner Gallery in Chelsea through next week, when they will be transferred to Christie’s and exhibited there until the evening of the sale. In the spirit of the project, Christie’s has waived all fees and commissions, with 100 percent of the proceeds earmarked for NGOs already working in Haiti.

“Usually, the auction house and gallery are not the best of friends,” Zwirner explained candidly as the tour began, “but this time, we forged a fantastic partnership.” The project started informally, he went on, in conversations with Stiller last year. Although Zwirner was initially reluctant to get involved, a trip to the devastated country in January 2011 inspired him, and after a short meeting with Christie’s owner François Pinault -- “it took not ten, but three minutes to win him over” -- Zwirner was on the phone, ringing up his artist friends to ask for help and garnering resounding “yeses” across the board.

First to sign on was California draughtsman Raymond Pettibon, who not only produced two large acrylic paintings on paper expressly for the sale, but also hand-scrawled the show’s title, “Artists for Haiti,” as the text for both the catalogue and the gallery walls. No title (But the sand…) (est. $300,000-$500,000) depicts an enormous wave, cresting in violent, foamy peaks and tossing surfers from their boards. A signature Pettibon homage to West Coast counterculture, the work posits the ocean’s arbitrary aggression as a metaphor for the capriciousness of Nature’s wrath.

“More than 40 percent of Haiti’s population is currently under 18 years old, and most of these kids are without education because their schools were destroyed by the earthquake,” Zwirner asserted as he led us around the first gallery. “It costs about $1,000 to get one of them back to school; when I thought about the prices that works by these artists go for, I realized that we should be able to help.” 

As he spoke, he gestured towards a large, round work in printed steel by Algerian artist Adel Abdessemed (b. 1971), installed on the wall near the Pettibon painting. Mappemonde – olive (est. $150,000-$200,000)is a recycled map of the world, 118 inches in diameter and constructed entirely out of discarded everyday materials that the artist found littered around his native country -- in this case, flattened cans of olive oil. Next to it hangs a haunting painting made for the sale by Belgian superstar Luc Tuymans, who has been represented by Zwirner for over 15 years. Cruelly titled Deal-No Deal (est. $600,000-$800,000), the over-seven-foot-tall oil takes its name from a popular Belgian video game. It pictures an aging man in glasses, hunched, alone, over such an entertainment in the pale, dusty light of a Bruges bar: a powerful image of isolation.

The same gallery contains a triptych of small works in oil and collage (est. $150,000-$200,000) by another Belgian artist, Francis Al˙s. Hung in frames, they each represent the Strait of Gibraltar as it might appear on a children’s atlas, rendered in bright pastels and bridged in Al˙s’ versions by the long stride of an oversized angelic figure. The opposite wall boasts Chinese artist Zhang Huan’s ash painting of a flag without recognizable national identity, ironically titled Chinese Flag No. 1 (est. $100,000-$150,000).

The next room “speaks straight to my minimalist heart,” Zwirner declared, smiling, and is devoted to two signature works, one by Dan Flavin and one by Rudolf “Rudi” Stingel, a “prototypical post-minimalist.” Flavin’s “monument” for V. Tatlin (est. $800,000-$1,200,000), an iconic light sculpture made in 1967 and donated to the sale by the artist’s son, Steven Flavin, is perhaps the artist’s best-known work. Stingel’s untitled 83 x 67 inch oil painting, dating from 2008, is a disturbing allusion to entrapment: an allover image of a white chain-link fence graded against a stark, gray background. “Not much art can take the bright light of the Flavin,” Zwirner mused, “but Rudi’s work can.”

“Artists for Haiti” also includes one gallery devoted exclusively to works on paper, such as a small drawing by Elizabeth Peyton of rap-star Jay-Z and a large self-portrait print by preeminent Photorealist Chuck Close. Across the room from the Peyton hangs an understated 1979 drawing by Ed Ruscha, Pick, Pan, Shovel # 7 (est. $50,000-$75,000), which was donated by the artist from his private collection. Spare and graphic, it depicts pairs of shovels, matches, and silverware crossed over one another and placed on top of dinner plates -- a metaphor for relief and reconstruction, in Zwirner’s words -- and is “a mighty rare work,” boasting a special feature: the artist’s footprints. Ruscha, known for his pristine esthetic and emphasis on the absence of touch, apparently walked all over the drawing, and left the proof intact.

An ink on plastic work by Jasper Johns -- the first artist ever to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom -- completes the room. Made in 2009 and part of the Fragment of a Letter series first seen in his exhibition at Matthew Marks Gallery last spring, Zwirner concedes that Johns had kept this particular untitled work for himself -- until now. It is estimated to sell for between $500,000-$600,000.

Other standouts in the show include a large diptych by Pop Art pioneer James Rosenquist, whose home and studio were tragically consumed by fire in 2009. Titled The Richest Person Gazing at the Universe through a Hubcap (est. $600,000-$800,000), stretching nearly 12 feet in length and made expressly for the sale, the painting is rich in iconography. Front and center is “a pile of money -- which is what we hope to get out of this,” Zwirner quipped. Behind it float two echoes of the physical, vulgar nature of most of our realities: a hubcap -- referencing industry? -- and a skull, a morbid reminder of our mortality. The symbols are backgrounded by a swirling cosmic mist of twinkling color, recalling the mysteries of nature that exist outside of our understanding and beyond our control.

Still more showstoppers include a plastic lamp called Kippenblinky (1991) by jokester Martin Kippenberger, a strange photographic work on steel made by Jeff Koons and titled Bikini Desert, and a photograph from Cindy Sherman’s latest body of work. A striking, large-scale collage by Paul McCarthy titled Mountaineer Hummel (Puck Penissss) (2009) -- “raw and radical, just like him” -- is the first two-dimensional McCarthy work of such scale to be sold in a public auction (est. $250,000-$350,000).

The exhibition concludes with a room of greats, ranging from Louise Bourgeois to Cecily Brown. “I felt it was important to include a work by Chris Ofili, because he lives in Trinidad now and is a Caribbean resident,” Zwirner declared. “I wanted his voice in this.” For the show, Ofili made Blue Smoke (est. $300,000-$400,000), a signature “blue painting” -- again, the first of its size to be offered to the public. Comprised entirely of blue paint in various hues and tones, from Prussian to Cobalt to Ultramarine, the large painting requires a lot of looking, “like an Ad Reinhardt” -- but such looking rewards lookers with a vision of quiet, island isolation.

Lastly, the contribution of famed South African figurative painter Marlene Dumas (b. 1953) is new to public view. Titled My modeor voor sy my was (My mother before she became my mother) (est. $600,000-$800,000), it presents a searing, ethereal vision of maternal femininity, warm and pure, the figure brandishing a handful of white flowers and emerging from a background of vegetal greens and ochres as if from the ether of a dream.

“Haiti is part of our hemisphere,” Zwirner said, to close. “It is near where we vacation and where we live. There is absolutely no reason why it can’t become a success story; it’s a cause that will be with us throughout our life spans. The silver lining of the earthquake is that it has galvanized the international community; we realize that we must come together. Something can be done.”

“Artists for Haiti,” on view Sept. 4-14, 2011, at David Zwirner Gallery, 525 West 19th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011. The sale is scheduled for 7 pm on Sept. 22, 2011, at Christie’s New York, 20 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, N.Y. 10020.

EMILY NATHAN is assistant editor at Artnet Magazine. Contact Send Email